Curating the Now. First thoughts on the idea and implications of Rapid Response Collecting

von Oskar Piegsa

One of the new objects on display at the V&A is this, a gun that comes from a 3D printer (CC image by Electric-Eye via flickr)

I’ve learned a new term today. Indeed, it’s quite a facy one that will help me smarten up my rusty English.

Check this out: Rapid Response Collecting.

Sorry, but … Rapid what? Well, apparently, the folks at Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A, »The world’s greatest museum of art and design«) are trying their hands at a new concept.

Okay, so what is Rapid Response Collecting about?

From what I can tell so far, Rapid Response Collecting centers on the idea that museums aren’t exclusively for old stuff. What follows is that curators select objects that are representative of what’s happening right now.

In the V&A’s own words

Rapid Response Collecting is a new strand to the V&A’s collecting activity. […] The display, which will constantly change, shows how design reflects and defines how we live together today. Ranging from Christian Louboutin shoes in five shades of »nude«; a cuddly toy wolf used as an object of political dissent; to the world’s first 3D-printed gun, each new acquisition raises a different question about globalisation, popular culture, political and social change, demographics, technology, regulation or the law.

Curators of other museums are watching this idea closely, according to the New York Times:

Sebastian Chan, the director of digital and emerging media at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in New York, called rapid-response collecting »a bold move« that »opens up a new way for the museum to engage the public in the social and political context of the designed products and services in the world around them.« He added that when the Cooper Hewitt reopens in December after a renovation, it will have space for »our own rapid-response initiatives and we will be watching the V&A’s work closely.«

The Rapid Response show opened only recently and being stuck in Hamburg with a day job and recovering from a summer flu, I haven’t had a chance to make plans for a trip to London yet. However, some of the displays must be quite intriguing. I love how they staged the aforementioned »nude« shoes.

Yeah … but what if Rapid Response Collecting turns out to be a bad idea?

Obviously, the V&A faces a few tricky questions. How do you curate the Now? I.e., how do you choose what’s important and what’s not without having the passing of time to assist you with your selection?

Another question is: How do you locate yourself within the fields of globalisation, popular culture, politics, demographics, technology, and law? I.e., how do you avoid falling victim to unacknowledged filter bubbles and biases, including the oldest filter bubble in the history of museum curating, namely Eurocentrism?

And then there’s the biggie, the meta-question: If Rapid Response Collecting isn’t just a marketing stunt designed to lure people who would much rather stay home and watch the FIFA World Cup; if Rapid Response Collecting actually does become an enduring trend, what does this tell us about the state of the museum as an institution and about ourselves?

After all, there’s been much criticism (and some praise) of the social and technological acceleration of our times.

There’s also been a lot of talk about the rise of the category of »contemporariness« in the art world that seems to have pushed all normative theories to the side (great for collectors, too bad for the critics).

There’s furthermore been the notion that in our fast-pasted media environment, the reasoned debate and forming of the political will has given way to the intellectual equivalent of mob rule and an overall lack of restraint.

(I have to admit that I participated in that argument with my essay for Die Zeit, praising the effect of small journals in the age of twitter and the 24-hour news cycle).

So, if »contemporariness« and »acceleration« are macrotrends of today, shouldn’t museums resist? Is Rapid Response Collecting the meme-ification of what used to be an even-tempered educational institution?

Hey, let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

Such are the siren calls of cultural pessimism, the strong suit of us Germans. However, there’s not much reason to fear the impeding doom of the old-school history museum.

As of now, there’s only the V&A engaged in Rapid Response Collecting. Being a design museum, the V&A is rooted in current history and has always been more »contemporary« than other institutions (after all, they’ve been doing shows on Japanese Street Style, retrospectives of living designers, etc.).

What is more, the folks at V&A are only dedicating a small part of their overall exhibition space to the theme. They also have a symposium planned in September to discuss what Rapid Response Collecting is all about.

Finding new ways of relating to the world through objects

I must say that I’m intrigued by the V&A’s idea. For some years now, I’ve loved Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships that has a very original and profound way of dealing with a collection of contemporary and seemingly trivial objects.

Of course, in the Museum of Broken Relationships‘ case, these objects are not about something grand like globalization, politics, etc., but rather about intimate relationships between only two people. (However, sometimes these intimate relationships do reflect something bigger!)

In a way, Rapid Response Collecting also seems to be similiar to what Claudius and I are trying to do with Die Dinge Europas. Well, only that our scope is much more limited. There are exclusively European objects on display at our show … and it’s not even a show in the original, three-dimensional meaning but rather a Web site that we hope will be turned into a book eventually. And we’re just two people with no money, a little-bitty teenie-weenie endeavor.

Still, I think that in the most mushy and general sense, all of us are experimenting with new ways of relating to the world and to other people through inanimate objects.

There must be many more museums and projects like that. I’d love to learn more about them and I’m thrilled that such an esteemed and established institution as the V&A has joined their (or dare I say our) ranks.

I’m very excited to see how this continues.

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